Congressman Confronts America’s Child-Labor Problem

Date: Tuesday, March 21, 2023
Source: Sourcing Journal

A Michigan lawmaker implored the Biden administration to investigate and punish U.S. businesses using child labor to make products including apparel.

Congressman Dan Kildee’s (D-Mich.) letter to Secretaries Walsh and Becerra of the U.S. Departments of Labor (DOL) and Health and Human Services (HHS) urged stronger enforcement action against violators of child labor laws in light of recent reports.

Signed by 61 Members of Congress, the letter dated March 13 points to a recent New York Times exposé that found migrant children as young as 12 were unlawfully employed by companies in 20 states, from a Michigan Cheerios factory to slaughterhouses in Delaware, Mississippi and North Carolina and a roofing company in Alabama. The Times also spoke to children working for a garment supplier in Los Angeles who sewed “Made in America” tags into T-shirts for J.Crew, which said it would investigate the allegations.

In a statement to Sourcing Journal, a J.Crew spokesperson said the company is “committed to sourcing products in an ethical, responsible, and legal manner, and we expect our suppliers to share our core values and meet our standards.” They further stated that suppliers must follow “J.Crew Group’s Vendor Code of Conduct which requires a commitment to promoting better working conditions. Should we find evidence that any supplier is in violation of our policies, we will take immediate action.”

Fruit of the Loom severed ties with sock maker Renfro, which recently started working with TrusTrace, after the Times investigation found middle-school-aged children employed at an Alabama facility run by the supplier to Polo Ralph Lauren, Chaps, Merrell and Hotsox.

“We take allegations of child labor very seriously and we support the processes to uphold human and labor rights,” the innerwear giant said in a statement dated Feb. 27. Fruit of the Loom went on to say that it maintains a “zero-tolerance policy for any practices of child labor, as reflected in our Code of Conduct.”

“We hold ourselves accountable to these standards in our own facilities and all our suppliers and licensees must adhere to these standards, as well. Accordingly, we will begin an immediate review of all of our current U.S. facilities, whether owned, or those of a supplier or licensee, to ensure that these violations are not happening elsewhere,” it added.

Fruit of the Loom, which ended its contract with Renfro at the close of 2022, said it “has been in the process of transitioning to a new licensing partner for more than six months.”

“This decision was not directly related to issues with the Fruit of the Loom, Inc. Code of Conduct and was made well before” the Times published its findings, it said. Renfro couldn’t immediately be reached for comment.

Kildee said the child-labor findings are reason for concern.

“We are concerned with new investigative reporting alleging migrant children are illegally working in factories across the United States for major corporations in the automotive, processed food and textile industries,” Kildee wrote, noting his frustration with “the lack of timely action” against these companies. DOL’s data shows that minors employed in violation of state child labor laws increased by 37 percent year-over-year in 2022. The Times report details serious injuries suffered by children who face dangerous factory conditions, including a 14-year-old whose hand was crushed in an industrial milking machine.

The letter urged the federal government to stop products made with illegal child labor from entering interstate commerce. “Specifically, under the Fair Labor Standards Act, DOL can prevent the shipment of goods made in factories that are using illegal child labor, also known as ‘hot goods,’” Kildee said. “This will ensure companies do not profit from the sale of products made while using illegal child labor and encourage companies to scrutinize their supply chains more closely.”

The DOL should also adopt more proactive enforcement measures, including civil monetary penalties and criminal referrals against bad actors, and the stakes of those actions must be raised through new legislation, he added. Auto parts suppliers in Alabama serving Japanese car manufacturer Hyundai were recently cited for child labor violations, with minors toiling under fake names in production plants and operating forklifts and welding equipment. While the automaker said it would cease working with those suppliers, the congressman said he and others “are concerned that Hyundai, at DOL’s suggestion, reversed course on this commitment and will not cut ties with its Alabama suppliers that use child labor.”

The Times report detailed a number of instances where unaccompanied minors were exploited after being released from the custody of HHS after crossing the border with Mexico. Children reported a lack of response by HHS when they reached out following their placement with a family member or other adult sponsor in the U.S.

Kildee said HHS “is taking insufficient steps to ensure the protection” of these children, and must “ensure that immediate follow-up happens when children request assistance regarding labor exploitation or the safety and security of their placement.”

“While it is important to move children out of HHS’ custody, it is critical we do not subject children to the same dangerous circumstances they were fleeing,” he added.

While Kildee and dozens of his peers are advocating to keep children out of factories and construction sites, other lawmakers are pushing to water down existing child labor laws to address widespread worker shortages. The Economic Policy Institute reported that at least 10 states introduced or passed laws rolling back child labor protections in the past two years.

Arkansas Governor Sarah Huckabee Sanders signed the Youth Hiring Act of 2023 into law last week, eliminating a mandate that children under the age of 16 need a work certificate with written consent from their parent or guardian to be employed. Beginning in June, New Jersey teens over the age of 16 will be able to work up to 50 hours a week, or 10 hours a day.

Minnesota State Senator Rich Draheim earlier this year authored the proposed Paid Youth Trades Employment Opportunity Act, which would allow 16- and 17-year-olds to work on construction sites. A proposal introduced in the Iowa legislature in February would allow teens ages 14 to 17 to work in previously prohibited jobs, like slaughter and meatpacking, roofing, or heavy machinery operation, if they are part of an approved training program.

The Nebraska legislature is currently considering setting a lower minimum wage for workers ages 14 and up. While the state’s per-hour minimum wage increased from $9 to $10.50 on Jan. 1, State Senator Tom Briese proposed capping the youth wage at $9 for the remainder of 2023.

Meanwhile, the Ohio legislature is considering a bill that would allow teens as young as 14 to work until 9 p.m. year-round—an amendment to a current law that prohibits them from working later hours during the school year. The bill passed committee earlier this month.


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